“And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.” Revelation 9:6 (KJV)
Imagine people standing stock-still like shop mannequins, seemingly unconscious but upright, or slumped forward, as commuters scurry past with their heads down. There were still more I spotted comatose on pavements or slumped in doorways. One young man in a grey tracksuit lolled on the steps outside McDonald’s, twitching and gibbering to himself.
Outside the Arndale Shopping Centre, I saw another youth passed out on his back, his arms and legs extended into the air as if rigor mortis had set in. These are the victims of Spice, a generic term for various mixtures of herbs and potent chemicals which, until last May, was openly on sale in Britain as a so-called ‘legal high’.
Now, a new powerful strain has emerged that produces a terrifying zombie-like effect in those who smoke it. It is estimated that up to 95 per cent of the young homeless in Manchester are using it, many of them hopelessly addicted.
‘Spice has the physically addictive qualities of heroin and the psychologically addictive qualities of crack,’ says Robert Ralphs, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Manchester and an expert on the drug.
The crisis came to national attention this week following the publication of video footage, shot by an office worker in Manchester, showing people under its influence.
Photographs published in the Mail, taken by a bus driver who was alarmed by what he was seeing along his route each day in Wrexham in North Wales, further underlined this developing threat.
I was, I admit, highly sceptical of the claims being made for Spice. I’m from Edinburgh, the heroin capital of Europe in the Eighties and setting for the film Trainspotting. I haven’t led a sheltered life and I believed I knew the worst that drugs could do.
It seemed highly unlikely a drug first produced as a supposedly ‘safe’ synthetic cannabis alternative — something available as a legal high for years to British teenagers — could have morphed into a substance wreaking more destruction than heroin or crack cocaine, as some of the reports suggested.
But what I have discovered is that there is nothing exaggerated about the effects of this highly addictive drug, as was evident within minutes of my arrival at Manchester Piccadilly Station this week. Around the city square and shopping area in Piccadilly Gardens, the ‘zombies’ with their sunken cheeks and ghostly white skin covered in sores are highly visible. I watched users on a bench packing their pipes with Spice. Within seconds of smoking the drug, they were catatonic.
Carl, 50, was mixing his fix — an odourless, crumbly, green mix — with tobacco to roll in a joint when I approached him, just 20 yards from a mobile police office. He became addicted some years ago after buying the drug at a shop selling legal highs.
‘It’s awful to come off it — you rattle,’ he told me. ‘I’ve tried to get off it, but it’s harder than gear [heroin].’ He inhaled on the joint. It looked like a cigarette and was odourless — one reason users feel no need to hide their habit.
‘I smoke this because it’s better for me than injecting with needles — better for my health. I’m starting to feel woozy. I can feel all my problems going away.’ The conversation was swiftly terminated: Carl decided he wanted to be alone. He stood up and moved down the street. I watched him go. Five minutes later, he had managed barely 100 yards.
Carl is a typical victim in that the roots of this problem go back to the manufacture of legal highs in the late Nineties. These were chemical compounds sold in attractive packaging and made in industrial quantities in China and India to beat UK drugs laws.
They were not covered by legislation because the key chemicals they contained were unknown. Under names such as Black Mamba, K2 and Spice, they were sold as ‘harmless’ synthetic cannabis substitutes in legal high shops across Britain.
After a series of deaths were linked to them, the government acted — belatedly in the view of many who had been warning of the dangers — to shut down these shops last May, when a new law was introduced banning all psychoactive substances said to impact mental health.
However, it was too late for those already addicted and so the demand for Spice remained. Dealers of traditional hard drugs such as ‘white’ and ‘brown’ (slang for cocaine and heroin) started selling Spice, which is far cheaper and less risky to make locally than to import hard drugs.
The so-called Spice barons buy plant materials in bulk on the internet and spray them with synthetic chemicals which have potent psychoactive properties. Some dealers mix whole batches in their baths.
Tests on a Spice sample obtained in Manchester this week indicated the leaves had been sprayed with 5F-ADB, a synthetic chemical originally developed to mimic cannabis, but which is far more ‘efficient’.
It has been linked to a number of deaths in the UK and abroad. According to some experts, one Spice joint is akin to smoking up to 100 cannabis joints.
No one can explain why the drug has taken hold so quickly or why in Manchester particularly. But price is a factor.
So much is being produced that it’s half the price it was when sold as a ‘legal high’. At £5 a fix — a small plastic bag of Spice bearing an image of Bob Marley — will produce three joints and leave the user comatose for ten hours. source